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First pages

Part I: The Architect

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.”

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

 

“There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Which, luckily, I am.” 
 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

1

She was tired.

Tired of the constant state of danger that the world was in and tired of the burden that she was forced to carry by allowing the girl live. Her black robe skirted the sidewalk as she slowly made her way towards her destination. Although she gave in to the decision at the time, Alexis thought then that the girl must be eliminated. It was simply a more practical option. As she headed towards the apartment for the first time in years, the clock was ticking and the danger was growing stronger. She had set out tonight because it was time to act, and the truth was that she required his help. His patience and desire to wait had been well intentioned, but now it seemed foolhardy to place so much hope in one girl. She hoped he would see it that way and that time alone had made him change his mind.

She took small steps despite having the ability to take longer strides. This walk was not one that she ever wanted to make knowing that this meant bringing her entire life’s work to a close. It meant bringing the girl’s life to an end as well and the girl was innocent. But sometimes one had to be sacrificed for the greater good and it would be her responsibility to bear.

Her knees wobbled slightly as her black sandals proceeded forward. The years since the last cycle had taken a toll on her— so much had been lost. Now, the moment to try and make things right was at hand. This last resort was the best option and she was committed to setting this chain of events in motion. And although painfully difficult, this opportunity would never present itself again. Things had not taken care of themselves and the girl had not shown herself to be extraordinary. They had to bring closure now or the rest of the world could be destroyed.

These were the thoughts that went through her mind as the tall, hooded woman made her way down 115th Street towards 3rd Avenue. There was no moon tonight, which was a fitting end. Her feet were heavy with every step that landed on the sidewalk without making a noise. Tonight was the last night that she could sit back and let the universe attempt to right her wrongs— this week the date would be upon her and the responsibility would be theirs.

Over the past few years, life for her had become a feeble attempt to survive by floating from one shell to the next while clinging to a tiny bit of salvation— hoping year after year that it would never come to this night. The air blew gently at her long, sable cloak. Her wrinkled face betrayed no emotion as she neared the building. She crept up the steps to the door. Reaching out a bony finger, she pressed the buzzer for apartment 1E.

The door unlocked and she made her way down the hall. Arriving at the entrance, she rapped lightly on the door. The door opened and the old man on the other side frowned as he stared at the newly arrived visitor. “How can it already be upon is?”

“It just is,” the woman in the doorway nodded slowly.

The wrinkled hand let go of the doorknob and his arm dropped to his side. He looked behind her and stared off into the night behind her. “I thought you would give her more time.”

“Time is no longer our friend,” she frowned. “And we haven’t time now to be nostalgic. The hour is upon us and we need to make a difficult choice. We must act now if there is to be any hope. We can bring it all to an end.” She looked beyond him into the vacant apartment behind him. “What have you be doing all these years?”

“Preparing in my own way I suppose,” his voice was a slow whisper.

“We have to decide now what to do with her.” Her voice held more urgency. She reached out and grabbed his hand firmly. “The time is here. This is an opportunity that we may not have again. You know what must be done.”

The old man’s focus returned to the woman whose face had slightly fewer wrinkles than his own. “I just don’t know if it’s necessary.”

“We agreed years ago to end this if we had to. We cannot lose our nerve. You know what’s at stake.”

“She’s just a child.” He shook his head.

“And all of the other children on this planet must suffer instead?”

“We’re too old. We are nothing compared to the other forces at work.”

“We must try. No matter how painful it is. We do not do this work out of satisfaction; we must do it out of necessity. We must not waver now.”

He sighed, “I have missed you Alexis.”

She frowned again, “I haven’t time for being sentimental. We must act. Although we had hoped that the path would be clear by the time of her thirteenth birthday, it is not. The girl endangers us all— and for that reason we now have to decide what to do. If they find her, all is lost. You know that now she can open their door.”

The old man hunched over in the entryway heaved a second heavy sigh, “But there is hope for her still. Alexis, we have to give her a chance. She’s just a—”

The older woman’s wrinkled hand whipped upward and grabbed him by his collar, “We haven’t time for this. We agreed that if she did not show promise by now that we would act. We made a promise that we would do what it takes. For the good of the world, we must bring this to a close. This hub is dying.” She let go and dropped her arms to her side as she regained her composure. “You made a promise. And you do remember the Night of the Knives?”

He reached up and touched a brown, wrinkled chin— rubbing it slowly, he stared out behind her. “You’re right Alexis… we did talk about this being an option. But I don’t know if I have the heart to see it through.”

The old woman shook her head, “There isn’t another way. You know that. We gave her more than enough opportunity. But now, the time is up. We can’t sit here like fools and watch the world plummet off the side of a cliff when we have the potential to stop it from happening. She’s dangerous and they will find her soon. We cannot allow her to fall into their hands.”

The man still rubbed his chin slowly. “We never should’ve let it come to this…”

“Well, we did. And now we’re here.” She narrowed her eyes, “You insisted on hope because of her mother, not I. I thought it might be better to end it then and there.”

He nodded slowly, “Yes, I suppose I did. How is it that you could ever come to lose hope?”

The woman shook her head, “We must act now. Gather up what you need. Tis better to be done quickly…” her voice trailed off.

Once again, the man in the flannel top sighed heavily. “If only…”

“If only? If only what? We did all that we could and this is the hand that fate has dealt. You should have prepared— you should’ve known what it would mean if you ever saw me again. We agreed to give her thirteen years.”

He nodded, “Yes, I suppose we did.”

“We did,” she snapped. “She is not her mother. Things did not work themselves out. The Shadows were not hunted down and we are out of options.”

“She deserves more time,” he called out to no one in particular. He turned to her and his voice grew stern. “Give her one month. Give her time to explore.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re a fool. An old fool.”

“Maybe,” he smiled. “But we owe it to them. After all, it was our fault.”

She quickly raised a hand as if to slap him, but froze. She dropped her open hand. “It doesn’t matter.”

He saw that she had doubt. “It always matters.” He pressed forward. “We made the mistake.”

She looked less steady. “And we can’t make another mistake.”

“Perhaps the mistake would be to not give her more time? She can save it all. She can create the next hub.”

“We don’t know that.”

“It could be true though. Give her a month… that is all I ask. Her mother only at this time was discovering her capabilities. See if she finds me.”

She paused and drew a deep breath. “You are lost. I knew that you wouldn’t have the nerve.”

“Some would say to wait takes more nerve.” He looked away. “I will not help you now.”

“You’re an old fool and this will be the death of us all.” There was a long pause. “I will return and I will need your help. I cannot do this alone, you know that.” She raised her voice and pointed to the empty room behind him. “And you need to be ready for all scenarios. Do I have to remind you that we are responsible— for all of this? We are responsible.”

“No,” he shook his head. “You never have to remind me of that. Every night, in my dreams I am reminded. I can still see her.”

“They will exploit her child and all hope will be lost.”

“I owe her this.” A tear formed in his eye as he turned and slowly made his way across the room. “It was my fault.”

The woman wrapped in the thick dark robe carrying the brown bag shook her head. “No,” she whispered silently, “the blame can be shared. I should’ve never listened to you and the others.” She turned and left as the door closed behind her.

2

There were so many things to hate about middle school. So many reasons to wish that it were possible to skip this stage of life altogether. Instead, the reality for Cass was that at least she was in the last of these three miserable years. And for the time being, the bathroom provided a quiet enough retreat from the rest of the school. While sitting on the counter next to the sink, she glanced at the time on her cell phone and then slid it back into her pocket. She still had twenty minutes in this lonely holding cell before she would head to social studies.

For her, lunch was absolutely the worst part of the middle school schedule. Most students looked forward to the time away from classes to sit and just chat with their friends. To her, this time in the cafeteria was a horrible daily sentence to be served. It was loud and chaotic, and that bothered some students, but rambunctious activity was actually the only part of lunch that she found appealing. It certainly wasn’t the reason why she stayed as far away as possible. Instead, for her it was the daily ritual of being alone on such a public stage that made her want to avoid the setting of shame altogether. During classes, she could hide in the back of the room or at least feel like she was blending in. In the classroom, she could quietly wait out the period without raising her hand and drawing unwanted attention to herself. Most importantly, she could blame her choice of seat on the teacher or a late arrival to class. But in the cafeteria, you couldn’t hide. Every time she slid into one of the seats at a table on her own she felt like a spotlight shone on her for everyone to see— because going to your seat there was always a choice and a statement about who you were. Everyone could see who had no friends. And sometimes on the worst of days there, the laughter or the food thrown in her direction added insult to injury.

The bathroom wasn’t ideal of course. There were used paper towels all over the floor, graffiti on the walls, and the terrible smell. Still, this imperfect safe harbor was better to her than the alternative. The idea of eating in the bathroom was disgusting to her though, so she always ate her lunch quickly in the fourth floor stairwell during the class change because fewer people were there. After eating on the steps of the top floor in the most isolated corner of the building, she went to the nearby girls’ bathroom— the one that was usually miraculously off everyone’s radar. Once there, she was able to just sit and count the minutes of the period that remained.

She looked at her copy of To Kill A Mockingbird on the counter, but didn’t really feel like reading today. Things were especially depressing today because of her upcoming birthday. She just wanted time to pass so she could step out into the hallway and blend in with the other students at the Advanced Preparatory Academy. Soon, the reality of the waves of blue shirts and sweaters with khaki pants would quickly flood the corridors.

Over the last two years, she had learned to get by in those hallways by drawing as little attention as possible to herself— especially avoiding one particularly mean group of students known as the Crew. As she passed through the hallways, she walked with her head down. It was better that way, to avoid eye contact. She also knew that it was important to move quickly and because of this, she had developed a brisk walk— it was harder to make fun of a moving target. She had learned other small tricks such as avoiding spending time at her locker where her classmates often congregated to talk about other students and arriving late to certain classes to avoid small talk before the bell rang.

Once again, she reached into her pocket to check the time on her ancient flip phone. Eleven minutes remained. It was at that moment that a sadness that she had been fighting for a long time reared its head. She looked at the lonely girl’s reflection in the broken mirror. How did I become the girl hiding in the bathroom? Her eyes began to well. How had this become my life? A tear slowly escaped and ran down her cheek. This is my life. This was what it had become and things would probably not be any better in high school. She watched several other tears run down the reflection of her face before reaching up to wipe them away. The fact that it was her birthday this week hadn’t made things better. She would soon be thirteen and was still the same nerdy, friendless girl she had been when she had entered sixth grade. And tonight, like every other night, she would head home to the lonely existence at an apartment where things were no better.

She took a deep breath and knew that although it was good to let it out and have a good cry, it was better to stop crying before entering the hallway. She hopped off the counter and packed up her backpack. She grabbed a paper towel and dabbed at her eyes. Staring at the tall, thin, dark skinned girl in the mirror, she shook her head. At that moment, the last words of her mother began to play softly in the back of her mind. She could hear her mother’s voice telling her with confidence, “You will change worlds.” She remembered that beautiful smile and those dark eyes and the image of her mother’s head full of beautiful locks nodding, “Yes indeed Cassandra, you will disturb the universe.”

The image and voice faded leaving her standing alone in the bathroom staring at the old, cracked, scratched mirror. “I’m sorry mom,” she muttered as the bell rang and it was time for class.

3

“What is wrong with you?” The large woman scolded as she shuffled out of her bedroom. “I can hear you pacing the floors. You know that I work late on Fridays and that I have to go in today. On Saturdays, you know you’re not supposed to make a sound.” Her hair disheveled and her robe hanging slightly off her frame, Jeanette Benson stepped out into the kitchen. The light from the window caught her face as she squinted and held a hand to her face. “The last thing I need today is you making all kinds of damn noise.”

“Sorry auntie.”

“Don’t you sorry auntie me. It’s too late, now I’m up.” She looked around the kitchen towards the table. “The least you can do is get some food on the table. I’m the one that’s gotta go earn a living today.”

“Yes auntie,” Cass replied while keeping her distance.

“That’s right,” her aunt turned back to the bedroom, “I’m going to shower up, but then I hope I see something good on that table. One of us has to make the rent in this godforsaken hole…”

Her voice faded as the door closed behind her.

Cass went back into the kitchen and fried a couple of eggs with some bacon. Although she didn’t eat meat, her aunt did— and she thought that with a side of toast, her aunt ought to be satisfied. She set two plates out on the table.

The door banged open and her aunt stumbled out in her work uniform. “Guess you knew that your aunt needed to be up anyway.” She sat down and dug into her plate, not speaking again until all was devoured.

Once it was finished, her aunt pushed the screeching chair back and stood up, “Don’t know why you’re so anxious today— your pacing around is making me nervous, but what you need to do is get on into this kitchen and get it cleaned up. It looks like a pigsty.” Her aunt grabbed her purse and headed for her bedroom. “Make sure it’s clean by the time I’m home.” Her wide frame waddled to the bedroom door and turned sideways to ease through. “Ned better not be on my ass today…” The door slammed shut.

Cass took her dishes from the table to the counter in the kitchen. Staring out the window at the bricks of the neighboring building, she thought back to yesterday and the memory she had of the voice of her mother.

The bedroom door came open and the short, stubby frame waddled in the door again. “…he must be out of his damn mind to think that I’m going to keep working all these doubles…” she mumbled.

Her aunt put her purse on the counter. “I’ll be hungry enough to eat a horse tonight, so it’ll be good to see dinner on the table when I get home. I’m tired of all these doubles that man expects me to work.” She looked at her niece with a critical eye, “You hear me?”

“Yes auntie.”

Her aunt nodded and focused on the plates by the sink. Slowly, she made her way to the dishes. Reaching down to Cass’s plate, her aunt scooped up the last bit of toast that had been remaining and popped it in her mouth. “That’s why you’ve got to watch those grades at school,” the words came out slightly muted by the mouthful of food in the way, a small piece of toast fluttered out as she spoke, “so you don’t have to work jobs like the one I’ve got.”

Cass nodded, “I’m going to head back to the computer to finish homework when you leave. Is there anything else you need while you’re gone?”

Her aunt spotted another bit of crust on the plate hidden behind the fruit bowl. She finished it off. “Yeah, a new job,” she said while cackling to herself.

Although her aunt wasn’t the warmest person on earth, she had provided a roof over her head and Cass was thankful for that. Her aunt scooped up a couple of scraps of eggs from the edge of the skillet and shoveled them in. She grabbed her coffee and went to sit down at the table. Cass came over and sat down next to her aunt.

“Well, what seems to be the occasion to bring her queen almighty out to join me?”

Cass readied herself by taking a deep breath and then shared what was on her mind. “Auntie, can you tell me about mom?”

Her aunt paused mid-sip and nodded looking at the girl. She brought the mug back down to rest on the table. “It’s been a long since I’ve heard that. Does that counselor woman have you upset about something?” She asked defensively.

Cass shook her head. “No, I was just thinking of her today. Missing her.”

The hard edges of her aunt softened as her voice did as well. “That woman was something else. Drove me crazy half the time— those were the times I didn’t understand why the hell my brother thought to marry her. But the other half, that was something else entirely. Your mom was a good woman.”

Cass proceeded with caution, “Was there anything, um, special about her?”

Her aunt raised her eyebrow.

“Um, you know, was there anything… different about her?”

Aunt Jeanine relaxed and let out a loud cackle, “Your mom? Was there anything not different about her?” She continued to laugh at her own joke. “Your mother wasn’t like anyone else on this damn earth, you know that.”

And Cass did. She remembered moving around a lot as a young child after her father died. As she got older, she thought it was strange that her mother never mentioned having a job. There was also the strange art and artifacts around the apartment that were lost in the fire. “I mean anything that I should know now that I’m older.”

Her aunt’s countenance showed a look seldom seen— a look of pity. “As strange as her secrecy was— the whole never-letting-us-know where she lived at any particular moment, the whole dropping-off-the-face-of-the-earth for months at a time, the conversations where she was seeming-to-be-in-her-own-world, the what-exactly-does-that-woman-do-for-a-damn-living question that never got answered… as strange as all of those things were— I have to admit, there was no kinder soul on earth than your mother.” Even her aunt seemed a little nostalgic now, but it lasted only a maudlin second. “So, yes, your mother was one strange bird. I didn’t even know where exactly you were ‘til after the fire. And your mom did seem to be a bit paranoid about everything— I suppose that’s why all the secrecy. And, well, I guess you’re old enough to know now, she did always talk about protecting you. Which is normal for a parent, but I have to say that the way she talked about you wasn’t quite normal. All parents swear that their child is special, but when your mom said it, she meant it with all her heart. And I can remember that day in the garden when I was talking to her and she made me promise that I’d take care of you if anything happened to her. Then she went jabbering on about some craziness that there’d be searchers for you and I’d have to protect you. I promised her I would and I told her that every parent worries about their child. But your mom, she really had some streak of crazy in her.” Her aunt caught herself, “in a good way, but still way too paranoid for her own worrying-good.”

Cass nodded wishing for more information, but it seemed clear that her aunt really didn’t have any more clues. With that, she got up to clear the cow-shaped salt and pepper shakers that were still out on the table.

“You know, it was so crazy at the time, that I didn’t think anything of it. But there was one more thing she used to say, something that never made any sense to me. But she did say that if anyone came calling with a pair of, what was the word she used, ummm, unnaturally, yeah, unnaturally dark eyes that I should get away as fast as I damn could. Never could figure out what she meant by that.”

“Thanks auntie,” Cass came back to the table and leaned down to give her aunt a hug, trying her best to wrap her arms around her. It felt good to hear about her mother— even if it didn’t make any sense. Her aunt sighed and got up. She walked back towards the desk where she had set her purse. “I know that you’re becoming a young woman and all, and this week is a big birthday.” She picked up her purse and dug through it while Cass watched from the kitchen. “Here it is.” She put the purse back down and returned to the kitchen holding something in her hand. “She had left this for you. She told me to give it to you for your thirteenth birthday. And I can’t lie, I’m not sure what you’ll do with the mess of crap that you’re gonna find there. But it is all yours.” She extended a wrinkled, brown hand out to Cass and a silver key with a tag attached to it dangled from her fingers. “Well, don’t just stare at it, making me all nostalgic, take the key. It’s yours. You can go tomorrow.” She jangled it to make it jump a little.

Cass reached out and took it. “Thank you.”

“Don’t be thanking me. Your mom left this for you. It’s her stuff— her mess of belongings in that unit. And believe you me, if there was anything of value in there, your auntie would’ve sold it because it’s hard putting a roof over our heads.” Her tone softened for a moment. “But I didn’t. It’s all there and for what it’s worth, it’s all yours. I suppose you’re old enough to decide what to do. The address and directions to open the storage unit are on the little tag. No one knows about it but me. And it was paid for in advance with cash until you’re eighteen, so I don’t even get any bills.” She looked up at Cass with her eyes moist.

Cass reached out, throwing her arms as best as she could around her aunt’s midsection. “Thank you auntie.”

Her aunt pulled back, “You don’t need to be thanking me— it’s yours. It’s what your mother would’ve wanted.” She shook free and kept her niece at arm’s length. “To be honest, it’s good to be rid of the thing.” She stepped away. “Now that we’ve got all that done with, I need to go because today’s going to be one long-ass day.” With that, her aunt made her way to the door. “You just have dinner on the table when I get home.” The door shut behind her, leaving the apartment silent.

Cass stared at the key dangling on a string and wondered what mysteries it held.

4

There was something about getting used to the sun that was dangerous. Jose had only been outside for a few hours now, but the warmth that he had felt while up top was contagious. Still, despite the excitement of being away from his dark dwelling and taking time to walk in the park among the trees and sun, his focus was elsewhere and it was tough to concentrate on anything other than the words of his Watcher. He could still hear those words being said and the Watcher’s voice filled his mind as he ducked into the hallway out of the light. The voice consumed him daily now that his birthday was near and he continued to hear it as he made his way to the hiding place.

He shook his head and tried to maintain his focus on the task at hand. Lately, it had become difficult though. This day had been coming for years, but it was finally at hand. At first this distraction had been welcomed by Jose as it gave moments of brief reprise from his daily rituals of hiding in Sanctuary and trying to avoid the Shadows when he occasionally left the safety of what had become his home. The most important of all of his birthdays would soon be here and this provided a new puzzle to focus on. In the beginning, it felt like a kind of project, maybe like one a normal kid might have in school. For a while, wondering why exactly his Watcher had said his thirteenth birthday held special significance was refreshing. But now weeks had passed and he had no new insights about the meaning of the words spoken years ago. Each day, he grew more anxious for his birthday to actually arrive so he might finally get some answers but the problem was that thinking about anything other than staying alive when he was out of his Sanctuary was a dangerous distraction that could get him killed.

He looked down at the shoebox before him. Slowly, he reached out to open it. Inside, it was still there. He picked up the item that was wrapped in tissue paper. Carefully, he unwrapped one of the objects that he had scattered around the city. He turned the watch over in his hands as a tear ran down his cheek. It was a bittersweet moment. He was happy to have found it without any problems, but sad at the prospect that he would have to give it up. He held the timepiece with the strange writing on the face and let it dangle from its chain for just a moment. He then quickly put the watch in his pocket and put the shoebox back in the wall. He replaced the board and looked at the wall to ensure that it looked as though it concealed no secrets.

He stood up and headed back to the sunshine. He promised himself that he would enjoy these next few hours in the light. He reached in his pocket and clutched the watch one more time, knowing that he was about to set in motion an event that had been foretold years ago. For better or worse, he would visit the Middleman for his birthday.

5

Cass took a second to close her eyes as she put the key in the lock. For that brief moment, she just wanted to thank her aunt for taking care of her. She appreciated that her aunt had kept this storage unit after all of these years. Her hand shook slightly and she could hear the slight jingle of the metal. In a few seconds, she would be stepping back in time. She pictured her mom and smiled. Opening her eyes, she turned the key. Removing the lock, she pulled open the storage unit.

The space was relatively small inside, a few feet in and a few feet across. A chair, a few tables lined with dust were in the middle. Stepping in she walked among the objects feeling as though she was an archeologist at a dig. She stopped at the largest table and stared at the boxes stacked on top. With that, she set to work investigating.

For the better part of the next hour, she sorted through the seemingly everyday items in boxes. Sitting on the floor with a box of postcards, exasperated, she called out, “I don’t understand, why you would go to all this trouble just to store this junk?” She looked around the mess of old dishware, books, and other everyday items.

She stood up and made her way to the back of the storage space. Hidden behind another box against the wall were several bags. She knelt down and picked one up. Opening the tie at the top of the bag, she found an old metal key inside. Not just any key, but one that was large, smooth, bronze, and ancient looking. Opening the other bags, she found other keys similar in size, but each one a different color.

She opened up her backpack and slid the bags holding the keys inside one at a time. Twelve in total. Placing the backpack on her back, it was surprisingly light. “I don’t know what they’re for, but they’re something.” She continued to look around, hoping to find something else out of the ordinary. Her eyes were drawn to a small box on a small table in the corner. She went over to the box and picked it up. Opening the box, she found a tiny statuette made of a polished, purple stone unlike any rock she had ever seen. She turned the object over in her hands. Attached to the back she found a small post-it, For the Middleman. She set the strange item on the table and then noticed that the box held a letter that said: Your world is waiting for you.

She picked up the plain white envelope. Turning it over in her hand, she knew that her aunt had opened it and resealed it. For the briefest of moments, she felt a small flash of anger at the idea that her aunt would violate this moment. But, in the end, she still had the storage space and the envelope. Her aunt had only been looking for a few extra dollars to make ends meet. She slowly opened the envelope, knowing that this was the closest that she had been to her mother since losing her. While opening the envelope, a picture fell out onto the table. Cass reached down and picked up the photo. The feeling that surfaced was a strange mix of exhilaration and confusion. She was excited that she instantly recognized the place in the photograph, but had no idea how somewhere so ordinary could be possibly be important.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I am an educator working in the New York City public schools. When I'm not at school, I'm planning my own escape from the city and have been fortunate enough to travel for much of my life. For this first novel, I’ve tried to capture my students' voices and create a fantastic getaway for my characters. Thank you for taking the time to read Cass’s story.

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
I was influenced by the fantastic worlds that I read about when I was a kid and have always had a love of fantasy.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
When I was a kid, I didn't love school but I did always love reading and writing. The characters that I create often share that frustration with being in school.

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